Mr. Bassett to Mr. Fish.
Port au Prince , February 23, 1874. (Received March 24.)
Sir: I have the honor to represent that, having been observant of the current of political events in this country since my last dispatches to you on the subject, I am now inclined to take the indications to be that General Michel Domingue, at present commander of the department of the south, wilt come to the presidency of Hayti on the expiration of the term of President Saget, in May; but that, nevertheless, there may, and most likely will, arise some sort of a civil commotion here between this date and the end of May or June next, because of the existence of strong ambitions, convictions, and pretensions, not in accord with those of General Domingue.
I propose in this dispatch to offer, with your permission, some of the reasons upon which these suppositions are based, and to touch upon some other points of interest regarding the political situation here. There may be said to be three different parties who have now serious pretensions to the presidency of this republic. These are, (1) the party of President Saget, (2) the party of General Domingue, and (3) the party of the Corps Législatif. It has been thought by some that the former two form in reality only one party. * * * * * I assume that there are three different parties aiming at the chief power in the state; and, strange to say, the success of any one of them may, and probably will, plunge the country into domestic strife, though if either the Saget party or the party of the Corps Législatif should coalesce with that of Dominigue, and act for his elevation to the presidency—an event which at this date seems quite improbable—an appeal to force may be for the time avoided.
It would seem to us almost incredible that the President of a republic should even contemplate such a step as prolonging his term of office in defiance of the fundamental law of the land. But it must be remembered that no Havtien chief of state has ever, of his own accord, given up his power, except President Pierrot, who is said to have retired with disgust in 1846. It does not appear to run in Haytian blood voluntarily to renounce authority once obtained. So that President Saget would have the example of all his predecessors, except Pierrot, if he should attempt to hold on to power. And, besides, he would, in such a case, probably retain the co-operation of many of his military chieftains, and he could count especially, I think, upon the support of the priesthood, which is, in reality, no mean power in this, as in all other countries where the Romish church enjoys the preference of state authority.
But the attempt itself would be in direct violation of the 107th article of the constitution, which provides that no person can be re-elected President except after an interval of four years, and in contravention of pledges made by himself and by those who placed him in power at the cost of two years of a sanguinary civil contest, and the putting to death of Salnave on the ground that he had not duly observed this same constitution. If he should seriously try to continue in authority after the expiration of his term of office he would invoke, and in my opinion would receive, upon himself and his followers, the active and probably the violent opposition of the old Salnavists, the Dominguists, and especially of the Corps Législatif and its partisans, and he might thus unwittingly make himself the first victim of the bad example [Page 599] which he helped to set in the case of his predecessor. Nevertheless, reports are not wanting, to show that he has had it in contemplation to continue in his office. As long ago as June last, a well-known clergyman, in the course of a visit at the palace, reminded his excellency, in a purely complimentary manner, of the salutary example which would be given to the Haytian people when they should see him voluntarily lay down his power at the end of his term, in May, 1874. Whereupon his excellency remarked, with some warmth of manner, “Yes, my friend; but don’t you see, if I were to retire as you indicate, my most faithful lieutenants would at once be persecuted. I must stand by them at all hazards.” He has even said that if the “ambitious young men” in the chambers should in the spring provoke discord and violence in the country, it would be his duty to “bring them to order” before retiring; “because,” said he, “I am pledged to hand over the republic in peace and tranquillity when I leave my office.” His minister of finance recently stated that he thought it “clear that society demanded that President Saget should continue at the head of the state.” In short, reports of the President’s purpose not voluntarily to retire at the end Of his constitutional term, have within a few months past become so current in political circles, that intimate and influential friends of both his excellency and General Domingue have lately called upon the former, and spoken to him in a confidential but most serious manner on the subject, and yet no one of them has thus far, I believe, obtained from him either a disclaimer of any such intention on his part, or even any satisfactory answer at all, notwithstanding the fact that he was assured by them, especially by Admiral Déjoie, that if he were to attempt to continue in office, a large proportion of those who now support him would then desert him, “and,” added the admiral, “among the foremost of them would be myself.”
But President Saget is not altogether deficient in craftiness and an insight into the drift of affairs in his own country, and I fancy that in the end he may hesitate to allow the sword to be drawn in support of his pretensions unless he should see a reasonable prospect of success in suppressing the resistance which he would in that case be sure to provoke.
On the other hand, the chances of the success of General Domingue seem much better founded. During the contest against Salnave, Domingue was “President of the south of Hayti,” as Saget was “President” of the north; and it is admitted on all hands that in the conduct of affairs there he displayed both decision and ability, although it was said that sometimes pending the state of hostilities he acted with fierceness. Both my predecessor and Rear-Admiral Hoff expressed to their respective departments their objections to some of the deeds which were at the time attributed to him. And it is due to truth to say that I was obliged myself to form a very unfavorable opinion of him. But I have found that the cruelties which Domingue is said to have committed somewhat openly in a time of civil inquietude and actual hostilities have really been sanctioned and substantially repeated, albeit often in a much less open manner, since hostilities ceased. Indeed, I feel a shudder when I think now of the sacrifices of human life and the persecutions which have in one way or another received the approval, the sanction, or the connivance of all branches of this government. Far from wishing to seem even to palliate in the least degree the fearful severities charged against Domingue, I may nevertheless state that I think his record in this regard is scarcely worse than that of the leaders who are now arrayed against him in the race for the presidency. There is a remarkable [Page 600] sameness among Haitians in their conduct toward one another when once they are vested with power and opportunity.
When the National Assembly balloted for President in May, 1870, Domingue received a respectable vote, and after Saget had been declared elected, there was a wide-spread feeling that Domingue must be counted upon as Saget’s successor. There is said to have been even an understanding to this effect among all the triumphant revolutionists. Since that time the partisans of Domingue have worked in his interests with unceasing activity and sleepless energy. No weapon of force or art of persuasion known to the political arena has been left unemployed by them in their vigilant efforts to make his election sure. Every commune has been carefully canvassed and watched by those in his interest, and there is now hardly room for doubt as to the real strength which he possesses. So powerful are his adherents, and so universal is the conviction that he is to’ come to the presidency, that if he should not be regularly elected by the National Assembly, it is generally felt and acknowledged that his partisans would attempt to place him in power by force. On the other hand, it is feared in some quarters that if he reaches the presidency in any way, the partisans of the legislative body will seek to foment against him immediately thereafter an uprising which may or may not succeed. The principal confessed objections to him, based upon his action in the south during the anti-Salnave revolution, are that, as a man of considerable boldness and decision of character, he will be likely to resort to severe and arbitrary measures without adequate cause; that he will be under the influence of persons whose ideas and characters are not acceptable to the intelligent community or consonant with the general welfare; and that he will not rest content, as he has already announced, with the present constitution, which places restraints upon the executive and confers large powers upon the legislative body.
There is probably some force in all these objections. But it must be said of General Domingue, that daring the administration of President Saget he has maintained the utmost loyalty toward the government, and I must admit that he has commended himself to favorable consideration everywhere during this period by his general good conduct and modest, sensible demeanor. Whatever may be his real views of the foreign policy which this government ought to pursue, his partisans, among whom are some of the foremost men of the republic, have taken pains confidentially to pledge his administration, if he should arrive to power, to the most amicable and satisfactory course toward foreign powers, especially toward the United States. Of course I place very little confidence in these assurances, but it is worthy of notice, and in fact a little remarkable, that he has thought it worth while to make even such advances to us, because the policy of those now in power appears to have been to base their claim to popular favor upon their ability to ignore, overreach, or be entirely “independent” of foreign influences. My conviction is that, under all the circumstances, the elevation of General Domingue to the presidency will not lessen and possibly may better our interests in Hayti. He is a man well advanced in years, and he seems desirous now of making for himself a good name among his countrymen, and of doing what he can to commend his record to the favorable judgment of the outside world.
As to the National Assembly, it is conceded that, if it meets, it will stoutly contest Domingue’s election. But if it be found that a majority of that body may not favor General Domingue, it may not be permitted [Page 601] to meet at all; that is, it may be handled precisely as it was handled last year.
Every true American must give preference to the representative republican form of government of which the legislative body is an essential part. But in this country the elements of a true republican government do not yet exist. Without a greater degree than now exists of patriotism, virtue, and instruction among the masses, how can Hayti expect to be a true republic? The legislature here is hardly an independent body 5 it has not in effect that share of power which belongs to such a body in a republic, and never has had. On paper its power is considerable; in fact it is limited. During this administration the legislature has won distinction by doing its utmost to avoid the payment of our claims, and has, in my opinion, lent its countenance and aid to the interference of this government in the affairs of its neighbors. It seems to have sought to assume an air of supreme independence toward the outside world generally. It has lent itself to and been used in some instances by the executive as a cloak to shield itself from duties and responsibilities toward us.
I sincerely hope for an improved condition of affairs in Hayti at some future day, but I fear that we shall not be the gainers here now if the present members of its legislature succeed in electing to the presidency any man who is to do their bidding.
I am, &c.,